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Charlotte LaVerne McNeill


It's been a beautiful two days on the Isle of Bute.

The sun reaches out to tickle the tips of my fingers and tan the back of my neck from the vast azure dome of the sky. There isn't a cloud to be seen.

And Gregg's baby is adorable, the kind of sweet darling that makes me feel like fathering my own brood.

Proud father with his newborn daughter

Our way of life


I'm sitting in Cleveland Hopkins International Airport waiting for a delayed flight to Newark.

I miss my family. I've been apart from them for a total of forty minutes.

We met for the Baha'i holidays this year - Ayyam'i'ha, four days of celebration.

My wife arrived first, via Las Vegas, where she attended by step-brother-in-law's wedding. I would have loved to have gone. Ingrida's father was there and I like him. He's got a ready smile and is willing to work hard. But I'm looking for work and it was an imprudent time to take my eye off the ball so Ingrida passed through Mentor (and then came back) a few days before I arrived.

Mendon drove down from Chicago the next day, then Mara drove up with Liam, then Rachael and Eric drove out. On Friday, we drove down to pick up Mark from Columbus and drive back up. No Kristen, but everyone else made it.

No Maman. That was tough, but hardly unexpected. It didn't go totally unmentioned, but I never know what to say. It feels to me as though there are some feelings to which no words can do justice and the keen grief we feel at the loss of our mother is one. Mendon seems to do the best at wresting meaning from the inchoate spiritual maelstrom wrought by the void where my mother used to be; his words are comforting. And I'm proud to have a brother brave enough to attempt what I believe to be impossible. But I still think it's impossible to put my keening into words.

We baked bread every day. Liam woke at 7 every morning; Mara or Mark woke with him, then me, then Papa, then slowly the rest of the house. Breakfast - sausage, pancakes, eggs, cereal, orange juice and tea, pot after pot of tea.

It was wonderful. And the sadness of leaving is sticking in my throat. I love my family.

I'm getting married on Saturday.

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Woo hoo!

I can't wait!

Spiritual Revolution


Saturday evening, Ingrida and I went to see Jamie's show, Elements. Outside of Germany, it's called Spirit, but since this is German for alcohol, they decided to give the name a skip and call the show Elements until they were in France.

Watching the show was a great time; if you're in Paris next week, go catch it. We're planning on seeing it again when it gets to Bordeaux, since we can match it up with a visit to our French cousins. It has several solo numbers, three precision numbers and some mixing, where the precision number is interspersed with solo artists. There were also some "special acts," performed by couples or groups of couples that were great to watch and looked fantastic but wouldn't have been competition legal.

The show was divided into several themes. It had a strongly Chinese flavoured set of numbers, a street dancing number, a Native American number and a finale. The Chinese flavoured set - which had overtones reminiscent of Mulan - lasted for most of the first part of the show.

Holiday on Ice Chinese dragon A precison component

Jamie fell during this number Jamie is wearing a yellow skirt and a teal headband

The Finale

There was an intermission, where we discovered that if something just isn't the worst around, you can always rely on the Germans to make something extra worst.


My favourite number was the street dance, which was set to Macy Gray's Sexual Revolution, but because the song is filthy and this is a family show, they changed the title and the lyrics and then had someone re-perform the song. They called it Spiritual Revolution and replaced all of the dirty words. Despite this bit of musical emasculation, the number was well choreographed, the performers had great costumes and everyone looked like they were having fun.

All in all, it was a great show and a great weekend!

Afterwards, we stayed up with Jamie until 6(!), drinking champagne and chatting. She had to get up to skate at 0930. I have no idea how she did it; I slept until noon and still felt tired all day.

Hangin' out with Jamie in Mannheim


Ingrida and I are in Mannheim. It was a dual purpose trip: see my cousin and take Ingrida on a date.

The handy synergy comes from the fact that Jamie is in a show, Holiday on Ice, exactly the kind of thing that Ingrida loves.

So we checked into the Cruise Cafe Hotel Mannheim, a little three star hotel just a five minute walk from the central commercial district of Mannheim. The hotel has a lot going for it and a few drawbacks; the drawbacks are minimal and I highly recommend the place. It was €99 for two nights plus two nights of parking for two people, or the equivalent of €25/night per person - about £19/night per person. For those of you reading in the UK, this was a three star hotel, not a backpackers hostel. And that price comes with a free buffet breakfast every day. It goes beyond good value, actually; it was amazing.

They didn't have room service, so we ran out of wine on Saturday night and Jamie had to sneak off and blag a bottle of whiskey off a mate - and we had no mixers except peach nectar - but at this price, I'd be churlish to complain about the fact that the bar closes at one a.m.

Here's one oddity: there was a doorway that lead to nothing in our room.

Of course, our room also had a fridge, a stovetop, a pot, a colander, a spatula, one set of flatware and ample space to set up for a long stay, so it would be a great base for exploring Mannheim, just don't try to walk out onto the balcony, because it's not a balcony, it's just a three story drop.

Mannheim itself feels delightfully relaxed and was comparatively clean. The streets had a few dots of gum on them and occasionally you'd see a cigarette butt. That's it. It was the cleanest place I've seen outside of Scandinavia, coming in pretty close on the heels of Uppsala for cleanliness (nothing touches Trondheim, the world's cleanest city, where I felt bad wearing my boots outside, for fear that I was trudging dirt all over their pretty Norwegian idyll).

In a touch that I found simultaneously an example of German organization and idiosyncrasy was that the streets are all lettered and numbered instead of named. Our hotel was on C7. The main drag is D1. It is an incredibly efficient system; the letters run north to south, the numbers east to west. You not only know where you are in respect to your hotel but have a good idea how far you are. On the other hand, it is the sort of thing my cousin Caitlin might call "adorkable."

The tram system was exactly on time every time we used it and immaculate; perversely, this made me bitter about the rail system in Britain, which now seems so shabby as to be a disgrace to the third world, let alone a rich first world nation like the UK. I can't speak for all of Germany, but Mannheim has it right.

The trams run on time in Mannheim

Since trams are coming to Edinburgh, I'm interested in how they work. Certainly, they worked well in Mannheim. There are a number of key differences between Germany and Edinburgh, though, that I think will have to be addressed. In Mannheim we saw a demonstration of neo-Nazis. They were more polite and I felt safer walking past the demonstration back to my hotel than I do walking from Haymarket to my home on Queen Street after taking the late night train back from Glasgow. Neo-nazis aren't my favorite people in the world, but it was enlightening to me that they were less threatening than the neds who keep kicking in my door. Edinburgh will have to address this problem if it wants people to use the trams. Police and a couple of very public, humiliating arrests of the undesirable elements who disturb the public would go a long way towards discouraging the anti-social behavior - which would in turn encourage common folk to use the public transport.

In the center of Mannheim there's some kind of monument. I have no idea what it's for, but it was cool looking, so I took a picture. You can see it below as well, at the end of D1. Note how the trams run on the street. They actually work remarkably well. I hope that Scotland has learned from the lessons of places like Mannheim but I suspect not.

The trams criss cross the city centre

Friday night, we drove down from Frankfurt. We arrived at the hotel at 0230 Saturday morning - and stayed up talking to Jaime until 4 o'clock. Naturally, one of the first things we did Saturday morning was find a cafe. This place, down D2, had absolutely magnificent coffee. Although their English was as good as our German, we still managed to negotiate our purchases with considerable alacrity. Caffeine deprivation and their desire for our business were powerful motivators that worked to our mutual benefit.

Oh, yes, coffee!

The coffee here was fantastic; best latté I've ever had. The name of the place was either Bäckerei or Coffee to Go. This was based on the idea

The only person who wears as much pink as Jamie is Rachael. Jamie says: "I don't normally wear this much pink." Below is a picture of her and Ingrida in front of the fountain in Mannheim city square. One of the interesting things for me is that the sun managed to perfectly catch the lens coating and made a rainbow flare that crosses the entire photo. It's not what I was looking for, but it would be nearly impossible to reproduce.

Ingrida and Jamie look so cute! If only I could have taken the picture while they were sitting in a field of bunnies, with butterflies resting on their fingertips, hummingbirds and swallows flitting about singing. Jamie had to head off to her first performance of the day, so we were on our way to the tram stop.

The guy in the background is random

Ingrida and I were standing next to the fountain in the square in the middle of Mannheim. I put on my best German face, trying to look like my stern ancestors from Mecklenberg.

It's my American Gothic look

After hanging out in the city centre, having the world's best coffee and then seeing Jamie off, we went shopping. By accident, we found a German farmer's market. It was filled with brown bread, cheeses, sausages, fruit and vegetables - and since we were staying in a room with a kitchenette, we bought enough for our supper. One of the best finds was Normandy butter, salted with Fleur de Sel de Camargue. We spread this on massive chunks of sourdough rye and happily munched the afternoon away. We bought our bread from the stand below.

Fresh bread

We bought cherries, plums, oranges and Sharon fruit from the place below. The fruit was uniformly of a high quality, though the cherries were strangely bland.

The prices were very reasonable.

I spoke to Caitlin! I spoke to Caitlin!


Wow! Wow!


I'm...I'm having a hard time holding it together, actually. It feels like my emotions are pulling me, hard, in a dozen different directions.

So, Caitlin is my cousin. She's my Uncle Christophe's daughter from his first marriage.

We've never met. She's forty, I think, although she sounded like she was about twenty-four on the phone.

And I'd never spoken to her. My mother used to remind the kids about her, until I was about eight or nine or so, and we'd talk about her from time to time.

I hoped she had a new family, that her mother had remarried and that there were lots of new aunts and uncles to love her the same way that we had Aunt Barbara & Uncle Christophe, Aunt Sherry & Uncle Phillippe, Aunt Margaret & Uncle Claude, Aunt Barbara & Uncle Thom, Aunt Margie & Uncle Johnny, Aunt Suellen & Uncle Gene, and cousins: Celeste, Jesse, Jamie, Jonathan, me, Mara, Rachael, Mendon, Zayne, Rahmat,

But I wanted to meet her. She was my cousin, after all, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family.

I'll admit that, quixotically, I used to have little fantasies about finding her and saying, "Hey! We're your cousins! Want to come swimming?" And we'd go swimming and then she'd go home and say: "I spent all day playing with my cousins!" and then some kind of middle step that I never really figured out would happen and then we'd be family again.

And, of course, I'd be the little hero and we'd all be happy.

Well, real life isn't like that. Or maybe it is, all except for the hero part or the we'd all be happy part. Not that I'm not happy, but I am crying. I was so terrified of crying the whole time that I just talked non-stop, like a Thompson machine gun with a stuck trigger. (If you're reading this, Caitlin, I'm sorry!)

She's cool. She's really, really cool.

She's clever. She speaks Java and .jsp and has "machines" instead of "a PC" and is a Mac person deep down at heart - but is really into this MicroSoft powered tablet, because OneNote is just so cool. And I haven't even gotten to the parts that got me all choked up yet. Although, yeah, that did make me a little moist eyed.

So, what had me choked up?

Well, you know that dream about the class that you didn't know you had, and that you'd been accidentally skipping all year and then there's an exam and everyone is like "What? Didn't you study?"

This is like that. I have a cousin that I know deep down in my heart that I love, and she's been my cousin for 35 years but I only just met her!

And the part of me that is still five is like: "This is not fair! I want a do over!" And the part of me that's grown up is like: "Hey, it isn't lucky to know her now?"

And Mommy would have loved her. She's funny, as in snort milk through your nose funny.

So it's bittersweet.

But mostly it's sweet. I'm really happy to have another cool cousin. And I'm going to call her again. Eventually, we'll find out the not cool things about each other. But not yet.


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Mark and Mara's baby was born late Wednesday, the 4th of April.

There have been a ton of pictures, but here are a few more.

I can't get over the way seeing him makes me feel; it damn near brings tears to my eyes every time he cuddles.

Uncle Puika.jpg

I do a lot of sleeping. So does Liam. It's a happy coincidence.

Aunt Rachael & Liam.jpg

Liam and his Aunt Rachael, my sister (yay! I love my sister; she's smart and pretty.)

Maman, Liam, Kristen.jpg

Liam, Gramma and Aunt Kristen, my sister-in-law.

My family immediately started crowding around him and working to try and figure out what makes him stop crying and what doesn't, how to make him smile and be happy. We love the newest Dornbrook.

On Good Friday, my grandfather, Eugene Foster Dornbrook, passed away.

He was 88.

We buried him on Friday the 13th.

My uncles all got up to speak and my Papa too. I was so proud he's my Daddy. He gave a good speech.

He and my grandmother were married for sixty-four years.

In 1944, the Germans shot the tail off his B-17 and he was the only person to survive. He thought fast and lived. He was imprisoned in Stalagluft 13 and tried to escape, along with a number of other prisoners, most of whom were killed.

They later made a movie about it called The Great Escape, which I have not seen.

God bless you, Grampa. Thank you for all that you did.

Things I love about my mother

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I love my mother.

If I could sing at all, I'd sing a song of praise:

Thank you for the gift of life, Maman, with all its heartache and joy.

Thank you for showing me how to love someone for your whole life. I wouldn't know it was possible if I hadn't seen it.

You're beautiful. I have a picture on my mantlepiece of you and Mara, both of you in your twenties. You're beautiful.

Thank you for always somehow knowing what I mean. For example:

Me: "I made thisfor you. It's a necklace that looks like Mimi's."
Maman: "The only necklace Mimi had like that was the one that she wore to the Halloween party in Narberth in 1957. She dressed up as a savage and Poppop was the great white hunter."
Me: "That's the one!"
Maman: "You've only ever seen it once. In a 50 year old photo. In black and white. When you were six."
Me: "It made a big impression on me! That's definitely the one."
Maman: "That necklace was made out of tiger teeth. This necklace is made out of coral."
Me: "Yeah, but it looks like it!"
Maman: "I love you, Nae. It's a very nice necklace."
Me: "I love you too, Maman." <- See! That's what I really meant. How you knew, I have no idea. You must be psychic.

I love your mulberry sorbet and your sour cherry pie and your cherry olives and your pot roast and your chicken paprikash and negre en chemise.

I love your paintings and your photos.

I love my purple and green wool socks.

I love every memory of us laughing together, sometimes for no reason.

I love you, Maman.

Happy Birthday, Mara!

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Today is Mara's 30th birthday.

Here's a few snapshots from the last thirty years...

Mara as a baby.jpg Mara as a happy baby.jpg

Contrary to popular belief, Mara was once a baby. In fact, she was a pretty happy baby!

Mara with Maman and Mimi.jpg Mara and Me in a tub.jpg

She's was less than a year old when Mimi and Maman and Mara went on a picnic to the Governer's Mansion in the Falklands. I know they're at the Governer's Mansion because there are trees. Mara and I used to get along pretty well. In fact, we used to take baths together! Mara, I'm sorry I dropped you on your head. I felt so bad, I hid behind the couch. Also, you may not remember, but you liked splashing a lot.

Mara and Mimi.jpg Mara me and Rae.jpg

Once, we went to visit Mimi and she was teaching Mara how to walk out in the driveway. Mara really liked it! It smelled really good at Mimi & Poppop's house, magnolias and figs and pine trees. Mara used to walk like this with Papa, except she did it on his toes. He and Mimi and Maman would get a sore back, because you had to bend over to hold her hands. I tried to do it, but I wasn't strong enough yet. You can see that we all still get along in this photo of me, Mara and Rachael! :)

Mara Birthday 1.jpg Mara Birthday 2.jpg Mara Birthday 3.jpg

Mara was also a young girl between being a little baby and thirty. I don't know how old she is, but I'd say nine on the left, eleven in the middle and twelve on the right.

Mara Birthday 4.jpg Mara Birthday 5.jpg

The picture on the right is one of my all time favorite pictures of Mara.

Mara and Rae.jpg Mara talks to Kristen.jpg

The picture on the left is fantastic and another favorite. It looks like Rachael is barely able to contain the giggles and Mara is barely able to conceal her disapproval. On the right, Mara is talking to Kristen at my parent's house. She's pretty thin for thirty, eh?

Mara's Birthday.jpg

Happy birthday, Mara!

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